Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
Here's why you should care about the United Nations' newest heap of jargon.
Tim McDonnellSep. 25, 2015 6:10 AM
A boy with his goat in Bangladesh, one of the countries where the rural poor are most vulnerable to climate change.
As the United Nations convenes in New York this week for its 70th General Assembly, one of the most prominent items on the schedule is to formally sign off on its brand-new Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs, which have been in the works for a few years, are basically a to-do list for all the world's governments from now until 2030. They're also a seemingly impenetrable pile of diplo-jargon.
"If you were to pick up the document, your first reaction could be that it's a lot of 'blah blah blah,'" said Peter Hazlewood, director of development at the World Resources Institute.
Still, the SDGs could have a significant impact on the allocation of resources to fight climate change and other environmental issues over the next decade. Here's what you need to know.
Replacing the Millennium Development Goals. The SDGs are a follow-up to the Millennium Development Goals, enacted in 2000. There were eight specific MDGs, all targeted at different aspects of extreme poverty: Reduce the child mortality rate by two-thirds, vastly expand access to clean drinking water, turn the tide against HIV/AIDS, etc. Of course, the goals aren't legally binding. Instead, the point was to give developed-country governments and international financial institutions such as the World Bank a target to shoot at when they make decisions about how to spend aid dollars or invest in certain projects. It's a way of saying: "We agree that these are the world's top priorities right now."
The "we" in that sentence was pretty controversial, since—according to lore, at least—the goals were drawn up behind closed doors in the UN basement by a group of elite diplomats. For that reason, it took years for a critical mass of governments to actually rally behind the MDGs and start to implement them. And even then, the they were sometimes criticized for being too narrow and not sufficiently focused on the root causes of poverty.
"Goals such as 'End poverty in all its forms everywhere,' may seem so broad that they will be easy to ignore," Michael Specter wrote.
As of the end of this year, the MDGs will have reached their expiration date. How well did we do on meeting them? So-so. Global poverty and childhood mortality have been greatly reduced; for example, between 1990 and 2015 the portion of people in developing countries living on less than $1.25 per day fell from 50 percent to 14 percent. Still, obviously, global poverty has not been eradicated. The UN's own recent assessment found many goals were un-met, especially with respect to gender equality and conflict refugee issues.
And even in the best scenario, it's far from clear how much impact the MDGs actually had on any of the issues they sought to address. During the same time period, for example, China was developing rapidly and opening up to international trade, which had a huge impact on lifting its citizens out of poverty—quite separately from anything the UN was doing. But it's safe to say that the MDGs loomed over budget conversations at agencies like USAID, and in that way had a tangible impact on how the US and other rich governments spent money on aid.
The MDGs "were far from perfect, and you cannot attribute all progress to them," Hazlewood said. "But you can make a strong case that they had a galvanizing effect."
So what are the Sustainable Development Goals? This time around, while still including poverty, the focus has swung much more toward environmental issues, including climate change adaptation. Here are the 17 goals:
End poverty in all its forms everywhere
End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
Reduce inequality within and among countries
Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development
If that seems like a lot, well, it is. While the MDGs were too narrow, the SDGs could very well be too broad. As Michael Specter pointed out in the New Yorker, "goals such as 'End poverty in all its forms everywhere,' may seem so broad that they will be easy to ignore." UK Prime Minister David Cameron said as much last year, warning that with so many goals, "there's a real danger they will end up sitting on a bookshelf, gathering dust." Even just reading the list seems overwhelming; imagine being a head of state trying to implement it in your sprawling national bureaucracy.
And they're not cheap: By some estimates, they could cost more than $7 trillion a year to implement, and there's still no clear consensus on where exactly that money will come from. It would likely be a mix of private-sector investment; aid from the UN and developed countries; and increased spending by developing countries.
Council on Foreign Relations
At the same time, the goals' breadth could be a strength, as less affluent countries become more involved in implementing them—as opposed to only being on the receiving end of aid dollars. They could provide an impetus for developing countries to get more serious about things under their control, like empowering women, or conserving natural resources, or making urban planning decisions with an eye toward climate impacts. At the very least, the goals provide ammunition for diplomatic peer-pressure: No country wants to look lackadaisical compared to the one next door, or act in direct contravention of the goals, lest they scare off donors or investors. And it could be a way for US agencies to justify increased spending on climate adaptation.
"These are universal goals," Hazlewood said. "It's not just about what the US should be doing with countries in Africa; it's about what every country in the world needs to do."
What's next? Of course, the UN can't compel any country to do any of these things. So the goals won't matter unless individual national governments take them seriously. Unlike the old MDGs, the SDGs were developed over several years with maximum transparency, involving a huge, diverse cast of governments, NGOs, and private companies. The rationale for that strategy was to increase everyone's stake in the goals, so that when they come into effect, countries will swiftly incorporate them into national policy decisions—in other words, take them off the page and into practice. We'll have to wait and see if that will really happen.
"With the MDGs it took years to get any kind of traction and for countries to take them seriously," Hazlewood said. "But this time we can get the process off to a better start."
In the run-up to Pope Francis' address to Congress today, there was a lot of speculation about how his climate change message would play in a chamber where action on climate often goes to die. Most of the pontiff's positions on global warming are not popular with Republican members of Congress—especially the fact that it exists, and that humans are causing it.
We got a bit of a preview during the pope's speech yesterday at the White House, where he laid out his typically forceful message on the need to fight global warming. He even favorably mentioned President Barack Obama's new restrictions on power plant emissions:
Mr. President, I find it encouraging that you are proposing an initiative for reducing air pollution. (Applause.) Accepting the urgency, it seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to our future generation. (Applause.) When it comes to the care of our common home, we are living at a critical moment of history. We still have time to make the change needed to bring about a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change. (Applause.)
But a draft of the pope's speech to Congress this morning lays out a considerably softer message on climate. He cites his landmark encyclical on climate, Laudato Si, but he doesn't use the phrase "climate change" at all:
It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth. The right use of natural resources, the proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable. "Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good" (Laudato Si’, 129). This common good also includes the earth, a central theme of the encyclical which I recently wrote in order to "enter into dialogue with all people about our common home" (ibid., 3). "We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all" (ibid., 14).
In Laudato Si’, I call for a courageous and responsible effort to "redirect our steps" (ibid., 61), and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity. I am convinced that we can make a difference and I have no doubt that the United States – and this Congress – have an important role to play. Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a "culture of care" (ibid., 231) and "an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature" (ibid., 139). "We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology" (ibid., 112); "to devise intelligent ways of... developing and limiting our power" (ibid., 78); and to put technology "at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral" (ibid., 112). In this regard, I am confident that America's outstanding academic and research institutions can make a vital contribution in the years ahead.
The message today is much softer, much less direct. Perhaps Pope Francis didn't want to tread too heavily on the message in a room that wouldn't be receptive to it.
Hillary Clinton has long declined to take a position on whether or not the Obama administration should approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline. That just changed. At a campaign event Tuesday in Des Moines, Iowa, Clinton came out against the controversial project.
"I think it is imperative that we look at the Keystone XL pipeline as what I believe it is: A distraction from the important work we have to do to combat climate change, and, unfortunately from my perspective, one that interferes with our ability to move forward and deal with other issues," she said during a campaign event in Iowa Tuesday.
"Therefore, I oppose it. I oppose it because I don't think it's in the best interest of what we need to do to combat climate change."
Clinton now joins the ranks of two of her opponents in the Democratic presidential primary, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley, who have both opposed the pipeline. Democrat Jim Webb, however, supports the project, along with all of the Republican candidates. A final decision, which has been years in the making, is expected from the Obama administration by the end of this year.
Leo is pulling his money out of fossil fuels…if he had any there to begin with.
It sounds like a huge, flashy number: $2.6 trillion.
That's probably why the environmental activist group 350.org used it in a headline for a press release today announcing a report on the growing movement to divest from dirty energy companies: "FOSSIL FUEL DIVESTMENT PLEDGES SURPASS $2.6 TRILLION."
But the report itself tells a somewhat different story.
Released this morning at a New York press conference, the report tallied commitments—made by a global assortment of universities, local governments, pension funds, charitable foundations, religious institutions, and more—to sell off investments in the fossil fuel industry. The tactic has become popular with climate activists as a way to call attention to the industry's transgressions against the climate, and maybe even to destabilize its bottom line.
On hand to trumpet the findings: Leonardo DiCaprio, along with the head of the UN climate agency (via video) and a packed room of top brass from environmental groups, clean energy companies, and major foundations. DiCaprio himself joined the list, pledging to divest his personal finances and his foundation's holdings from fossil fuels.
That big number—$2.6 trillion—has nothing to do with the amount of money that is actually being pulled out of fossil fuel stocks.
"To date," the report reads, "436 institutions and 2,040 individuals across 43 countries and representing $2.6 trillion in assets have committed to divest from fossil fuel companies."
"That's real money," said Ellen Dorsey, director of the Wallace Global Fund, in announcing the number, to much applause.
And it is! Pulling that kind of cash out of the fossil fuel juggernaut could land a true financial blow, a clear victory in the global war to stop climate change.
But there's a catch. That big number—$2.6 trillion—has nothing to do with the amount of money that is actually being pulled out of fossil fuel stocks. In fact, the investment consultancy behind today's report has no idea how much money the institutions surveyed have invested in fossil fuels, and thus how much they have pledged to divest.
Instead, that number refers to the total size of all the assets held by those institutions—hence the word "representing" in the quote above from the report. And that's a huge difference.
Here's a perfect example: The report lists the University of California system as a prominent new entry into the divestment movement. Earlier this month, the UC's chief investment officer announced that the system's endowment would sell off its holdings in coal and tar sands oil. Those holdings were worth about $200 million. An undisclosed amount is still invested in oil and gas. But the report uses the full amount of the university's total endowment: $98 billion. That's 490 times higher than the amount of money actually being divested.
So what's the exact portion of the $2.6 trillion that is being divested from fossil fuels? No one knows. Indeed, Dorsey couldn't even confirm that all the institutions listed in the report necessarily had any fossil fuel holdings in their portfolios before they decided to divest. As for DiCaprio, when asked by reporters to clarify the exact amount of his personal stake in fossil fuels, he smiled and waved but kept mum.
"Every investment portfolio is different, and some are exceedingly complex," Dorsey said.
Brad Goz, the director of business development for a New York consultancy that helps institutions figure out how to divest, agreed that it can be difficult to figure out how and where a fund is invested.
"Hedge funds like to keep it opaque," he said. "But that becomes less challenging when CEOs demand [the information]."
The best Dorsey could offer was an estimate based on the portion of the value of the S&P 500 that comes from fossil fuel companies: 3 to 7 percent. In other words, that $2.6 trillion statistic is probably much closer to $182 billion—a pretty small piece of the roughly $6 trillion value of the global market for coal, oil, and gas. Dorsey also clarified that the promised divestments are scheduled to take place over the next five years, not overnight.
When asked by reporters to clarify the exact amount of his personal stake in fossil fuels, DiCaprio smiled and waved but kept mum.
To be fair, the real divestment figure isn't nothing, and there's some evidence that it's growing: When this same analysis was released last year, the reported figure was just $50 billion (compared with $2.6 trillion this year). Still, it's not clear whether any of this is enough to actually draw the notice of corporations like Exxon and Shell, and the report offered no evidence that the divestment campaign has had a specific, tangible impact on share prices.
In an interview following the announcement, May Boeve, director of the activist group 350.org, defended the framing of the announcement, saying she doesn't "think it's misleading."
"The purpose of divestment is to make the point that the [fossil fuel] industry is losing legitimacy," she said. "It's about their reputation, which is less quantifiable but equally damaging."
If she meant that the appearance of a big divestment movement can help promote more divestment, she's probably right. Expect to see more announcements like this over the next few weeks in advance of the upcoming UN climate talks in Paris. Just make sure to read the fine print.